I’m extremely surprised to discover, during my customary post-viewing Googling, that this is widely regarded as one of the better episodes of the series. I don’t disagree with much of the critical response – that it’s good to explore the emotional impact of what happens to rift victims and their families, and that it was interesting to present a situation that had no easy solution – but it left me completely cold, in spite of those things.
A lot of the reviews talk about how this is a great example of sci-fi and what the genre can do, which leads me to ponder how weird it is that I don’t consider myself a sci-fi fan particularly, despite my two favourite programmes (Red Dwarf and Doctor Who) being sci-fi. But I fell in love with those two shows on the strength of other elements – character comedy and the brilliance of the lead character, respectively – the sci-fi was almost incidental.
So while I obviously have an affinity with and fondness for the genre, I need something extra on top if I’m going to really enjoy it. With Doctor Who and associated programming, I’m often in it for the characters, the way they work together and how they love and care for each other. Therefore, an episode which is essentially a complicated cycle of people being complete dicks to each other is going to struggle to get me going.
I don’t like Jack keeping secrets from the rest of the team – I thought they’d got past that with this series. He’s supposed to be all-knowing, compassionate, always-in-the-right Doctor substitute that we gravitate towards – how are we supposed to do that if we can’t trust him? We’re told that Gwen and Andy are great mates, but she’s horrible to him throughout, and he can’t stop making digs about her husband. Speaking of whom, seeing a man scream “I fucking hate you sometimes” in his wife’s face is not a pleasant image.
We were supposed to be on Rhys’s side during that argument, as he points out that nothing’s more important than everyday people’s everyday lives, but The Doctor he ain’t, and the point he’s making gets muddled when he says that Gwen’s work doesn’t matter. What Torchwood do is important, and he doesn’t get that Gwen is sacrificing her own everyday life for the sake of everyone else’s. He comes across as a selfish manbaby, petulantly complaining that his woman isn’t giving him 100% of her attention.
Gwen’s self-sacrifice is about doing what’s best for the greater good, which feels like it should be the theme of the episode, but the dots are never quite joined up. Jack is keeping the victims hidden away from their loved ones so that they don’t have to witness their suffering, and their memories of them are preserved. That’s great, and I can see why that’s the right thing to do, but why exactly does he have to keep it a secret from the team? Why doesn’t he just explain his reasoning to Gwen, rather than allowing her to bring Ruth Jones to the island to see her mutilated son screaming for 20 hours a day? He’s ruined that woman’s life just so that he can say “told you so”.